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House of Lords

Thursday, 21 May 2009.

11 am

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Ely.

Royal Assent

11.06 am

The following Act was given Royal Assent:

Industry and Exports (Financial Support) Act.

Personal Statement

11.07 am

Lord Snape: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a personal statement about the matters raised in the second report of the Committee for Privileges.

I express my gratitude to the Privileges Committee for its very careful consideration of this matter. I also thank colleagues in all parts of the House for their many expressions of personal support over what has been a very stressful four months. I of course accept the House’s findings and apologise to the House for any remarks that I may have inadvertently made in the course of my conversation with the journalists which demonstrated an inappropriate attitude to the rules governing the conduct of Members of this House.

Economy: Public Debt


11.07 am

Asked By Lord Barnett

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the 2009 Budget forecasts that public sector net debt, including a cautious judgment for unrealised losses on financial sector interventions, will rise to 79 per cent of GDP by 2013-14. These projections are consistent with debt then falling as a proportion of GDP by 2015-16 and a return to cyclically-adjusted current balance by 2017-18, when the global shocks will have worked their way through the economy in full.

Lord Barnett: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree with what the Governor of the Bank of England said last week about projections such as the ones he has just made? He said that,

Does that not mean that any projections by world famous economists, including the governor himself—or, indeed, even my noble friend Lord Peston—are only guesses and that in practice we do not know for certain when we are going to have an upturn in the economy? In those circumstances, is it not even more

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important that we do not start cutting public expenditure too soon? Can my noble friend give an assurance that any cuts in public expenditure or increases in taxation to reduce the debt will not happen until he is absolutely certain that there is a clear upturn in the economy?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, forecasting the future is difficult, as many economists are finding out. My noble friend is right that we have real uncertainties about the future but we can see the immediate needs—to which, of course, the Government are responding—of ensuring that we pursue strategies that get us through the downturn as rapidly as we can; preserving people in jobs as much as we are able; and retaining the skills of the nation, on which recovery is bound to be based. I hear what my noble friend says about the difficulty of forecasting. He will also know, of course, that the Treasury is obliged to give forecasts on where it thinks the economy is going over the next five to six years, and my opening Answer indicated the broad line of that approach.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, does the Minister recall that, as a small contribution to restoring the appalling state of the public finances, the Chancellor has promised—this is not a projection but a promise—efficiency savings of £44 billion over the six years from 2008-09 to 2013-14 inclusive? In order to give at least a smidgen of credibility to this figure, will the Minister now tell the House and the increasingly anxious financial markets precisely where these efficiency savings are going to come from and what they will consist of?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, of course there is going to be a considerable emphasis upon efficiency savings, but the noble Lord will know from his vast experience that this is a relatively small contributory factor to the overall position with regard to the public finances. It is an important dimension and one where he and his party colleagues have consistently said in the past that they can find endless amounts of potential efficiencies. I assure the House that the Government will identify the efficiencies that we can develop, and we expect the public finances to benefit from bearing down on such inefficiencies.

Lord Peston: My Lords, central to my noble friend Lord Barnett’s question is the fact that, if you are adjusting fiscal policy, timing is of the essence. There is past experience that we could learn from. In the mid-1930s the US fiscal position shifted from expansionary to contractionary totally by mistake—it was simply an error. Monetary policy also shifted in that direction, again by mistake. The result was that US expansion, which was going along nicely, came to a sudden halt, and poor old President Roosevelt had to restart his policy.

Noble Lords: Question!

Lord Peston: My Lords, is it not therefore vital that we learn from that kind of experience—noble Lords opposite might also take the point that they should learn from it—and not make the same mistake in 2010? We should not be thinking of contractionary policies for 2010 at all.

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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we certainly do need to learn the lessons of the past, and my noble friend has identified probably the most apposite one. He will recognise, though, that the Chancellor indicated in the Budget that we are making every effort to sustain the economy in this very sharp downturn. It is true that our debt is increasing, but it is doing so comparable with the other advanced world economies. It should be recognised—at times I despair of the Opposition recognising this factor—that it is not possible to put enormous constraints on public expenditure when the downturn is occurring; otherwise the consequences will be unemployment levels on a scale that we have not seen since the 1930s.

Lord Newby: My Lords, the Minister will be aware that UK Financial Investments is already hawking around the Government’s shareholding in Lloyds Banking Group and RBS to sovereign wealth funds and others. Will he assure us that the Government’s shareholdings in those banks will not be disposed of on the cheap in an attempt simply to reduce public debt in the short term?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an important point. I can give the noble Lord that assurance. We intend to use our position in supporting the banks to guarantee, as far as we are able, that the banks follow strategies that are consistent with the policies that we are adopting to minimise the length of the downturn. We have not approached this issue with an excessively short-term perspective on what the financial sector needs.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, will the Minister accept that, given the crucial role of funding the debt in determining the money supply, the decision of Mr Gordon Brown to transfer responsibility for it from the Bank of England to the Debt Management Office, which has no expertise in economic management, was a mistake and that responsibility ought to be transferred back to the Bank of England?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, but what the Debt Management Office has is the clear and necessary objective of protecting the United Kingdom economy and government lending, with its three-star credit position. The noble Lord will appreciate that, even in these very difficult times—none of us doubts for one moment the very difficult time that the British economy, along with other advanced world economies, is going through—our credit rating is being sustained.

Children: First-Time Mothers


11.16 am

Asked By Lord Northbourne

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the National Health Service is required to provide a range of services to first-time mothers. This includes a programme of antenatal appointments and scans during pregnancy, and screening tests and immunisations during the child’s early years. We are currently placing greater emphasis on early access to maternity care, particularly for young mothers and those from disadvantaged and ethnic minority groups, who may delay seeking care. We also provide support for both mothers and fathers after the baby is born.

Lord Northbourne: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the quality of the relationship and attachment between a mother and her child in the first few years of that child’s life is crucial in the way in which the child develops? Will the Government undertake to ensure that all NHS trusts, and not just some, provide first-time mothers with the advice and support that they need? Would this surely not be a worthwhile investment, bearing in mind the enormous cost and risk that children are at if they are not properly parented in those early years?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely correct. I pay tribute to the huge amount of work that he has done in your Lordships' House to support parents and parenthood. He is absolutely right: we recognise the importance of supporting parents in the early years of a child’s life. Women and their partners are offered antenatal and parentcraft classes, which are provided in a variety of ways; either one to one with the midwife, through group discussions, or in the bounty pack of information—which I am happy to share with anyone who wishes to see it—that is provided to new parents.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for sharing with me the pregnancy bounty pack—not that either of us needs it at the moment—which is very good. What specific initiatives are being undertaken for teenage mothers? Women do not get pregnant by themselves. Therefore, what is available for fathers before the birth?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend is right. We are working hard to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies, with some sign of success, but there is no doubt that teenage parents and their children are likely to experience a range of poor outcomes unless we are determined to try to break cycles of disadvantage. We are therefore tailoring antenatal services to address the vulnerability of teenage parents, both the mother and the father. We are encouraging them with advice on diet and nutrition during pregnancy, intensive health visitor support through a family-nurse partnership and with financial support for childcare, so that teenage parents under 20 who want to return to education and work-based learning can do so.

Baroness Morris of Bolton: My Lords, given how important health visitors are to new mothers, why have the Government allowed their numbers to fall so dramatically?

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Baroness Thornton: My Lords, it is certainly true that the number of health visitors has reduced in recent years. Therefore, we have prioritised an increase in that workforce and its capability. We have a joint action programme with the SHAs, commissioners and other stakeholders. There was a summit on 5 May about precisely this matter. To recruit and train more health visitors and get their numbers back up is an absolute priority.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, is the Minister aware that more than 500,000 women die every year in developing countries because of lack of care at birth and the lack of midwives and support staff? Their children, if they survive, get no support at all. Could the Minister pledge to this House that whatever extra staff we need for maternal and child care in this country will come from people trained here and will not be recruited from developing countries, where the need is so much greater?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, the noble Baroness raises a very important point. In fact, there has been a 25 per cent increase in the number of students entering training to become midwives in this country.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, I thank my noble friend, particularly for her first response. I ought, perhaps, to declare an interest as president of Straight Talking, an organisation designed to help teen mothers get through the initial stages concerning birth. I want to refer specifically to my noble friend’s point about maternity care. The Government have recently produced a document, Maternity Matters, which I understand is aimed at providing access and continuity of care as well as choice for women. How is that document going to be implemented, and how will the choice element of it be followed through?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, my noble friend is quite right; delivering Maternity Matters is a commitment priority for the NHS and in its operating framework for 2009-10. It is part of the NHS Next Stage Review, and all SHAs have set out plans to implement Maternity Matters to provide high-quality, safe maternity care for women and babies in their areas.

Baroness Coussins:My Lords, if it is still government policy that all pregnant women should have the right to choose where to give birth, what additional resources and services will be provided to cope with the inevitable adverse consequences of women with high-risk pregnancies choosing to give birth at home?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I know that the noble Baroness has expressed her concern about this matter in the past. The point about Maternity Matters is that women should, indeed, be able to choose, but should do so in consultation with their doctors and midwives about their birth plan, whether it is a home birth or a midwife facility. We have invested an additional £330 million in PCTs for maternity services to make sure that those choices which women are offered are safe and can be delivered in a proper fashion.

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11.22 am

Asked By Baroness Tonge

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, the UK Government have not been approached to provide support to UK lawyers assisting the United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding mission, led by Justice Goldstone. However, we urge both Israel and Hamas to co-operate with that mission and will consider carefully any report it produces. We have consistently said that all credible allegations of breaches of international humanitarian law during the military operation, by either side, should be properly investigated.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, the messages coming out of Israel have, so far, been of not co-operating with the investigation by the United Nations Human Rights Council. What pressure are our Government prepared to put on Israel to ensure that it co-operates, or will Israel again get away with breaches of international law and the Geneva Conventions without any international censure, on the pretext that some sort of peace process is going on? How can we honestly expect dictators such as President Bashir in Sudan to obey international law if Israel consistently gets away with breaking it?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the noble Baroness’s views on this matter are well known. She is, essentially, right that we cannot have a double standard. That is why we have pressed Israel to accept the investigation of the Human Rights Council led by Justice Goldstone. He has made it clear that he is looking at crimes against humanitarian law that might have been committed by both sides. We have warned Israel that it will be an extraordinarily bad own goal, if you like, if it does not allow Justice Goldstone access or co-operate with his inquiry.

Lord Janner of Braunstone: My Lords, as the United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, has said that there is no need for further investigation beyond the report of the United Nations board of inquiry and of Israel’s own investigations, what additional light does my noble friend expect the United Nations Human Rights Council’s fact-finding mission to shed on the Gaza conflict?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the UN board of inquiry was limited to the investigation of incidents involving attacks on UN premises or staff. The Human Rights Council inquiry is a much broader look at war crimes in their entirety that might have been committed by either side.

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Lord Hannay of Chiswick: My Lords, has the Minister any information on whether the United States Administration are also pressing the Israeli Government and Hamas—although they are somewhat handicapped by an absence of communication there—to co-operate with Judge Richard Goldstone’s inquiry? Could he go a little further than saying that we will study Judge Richard Goldstone’s recommendations when they come out? We should surely be making it clear that we will back them, and that we will not let the matter rest there.

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, the United States is engaged in an entirely welcome effort to move forward a diplomatic solution to this conflict. The President met the Israeli Prime Minister on Monday and will meet President Mubarak of Egypt and the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, later this month. I am sure that the Goldstone inquiry has featured within that, but I think that the US eye is set on the long-term goal here—a peace settlement that will last.

I think the noble Lord would accept that one first studies Justice Goldstone’s findings and then decides how to handle them. I have to speak carefully in this House which is so full of distinguished lawyers, but Justice Goldstone is probably one of the world’s most distinguished judges. He has an absolutely impeccable reputation for neutrality. He played a heroic role in the events that ended apartheid in South Africa, and in the subsequent investigation of those events. I cannot think of a more neutral man to lead such an inquiry.

Baroness Northover: My Lords, is the noble Lord surprised that there are reports that many in Gaza are increasingly cynical about the international rule of law in the circumstances? Is he absolutely confident that the current process meets his own demand made in this House that there should be,

Is what we are seeing even adequate?

Lord Malloch-Brown: My Lords, we have to see whether Justice Goldstone is able to complete his work. He is expected to report in June to the Human Rights Council. He has made it clear that if he is unable to enter through Israel, he will enter through the Rafah crossing. We should wait to see his report before concluding whether it meets the commitment that I gave to the House, and which I think we all agree is enormously important. For the people of Gaza, for the standing of Israel, and for international law more generally, it is important that these alleged crimes be looked into.

Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, while welcoming these steps taken by the Government on this issue, is it right that initially the UNHCR was proposing to launch an investigation into alleged breaches of rights by Israel alone, and omitted all allegations against Palestinian militants based in Gaza, including rocket attacks on Israel?

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